People & Animals

AV magazine issue 1, 2010 2010 Issue #1 Compassion into Action Living the Life
Denise Cowie

IF YOU READ THE COMIC PAGES in your local newspaper, you may be familiar with Bev, a feisty character in a nationally syndicated strip called "Edge City."

In a series of panels that ran in January, Grandma Bev arrives to babysit for her grandson and granddaughter while the parents are out of town, but she is astonished that the kids—both elementary-school age—are sitting around playing with electronics when they could be out doing fun things like protesting the status quo.

"Don't you guys want to help change the world for the better?" asks Bev, aptly described as an unreconstructed child of the 60s.

"C'mon, Grandma! We're only kids!" the youngsters respond, leaving unspoken the obvious "What could we do that would make any difference?"

Quite a bit, their grandmother might argue, especially if you start where you are now. That's why Bev says to her grandkids, "What about your school? Aren't there things you'd like to change?" Well, yes, they admit. They'd like better food in the school cafeteria, a place they frequent every day.

Bev may be only a comic strip character, but her words are right on target for all of us who would like to change things to make the world a better place for animals.

Wherever we are, at home, at school, in business, we make decisions every day that can reflect our stance on the rights of animals. At home, for example, we can choose to use cosmetics and household cleaners that are not tested on animals. At school, we can urge our teachers to seek alternatives through Animalearn to replace dissection in the classroom. In business, we may decide to sponsor a fundraiser for a local shelter or rescue organization, or commit to investing only in companies that meet our ethical standards.

We can rescue animals or adopt them from shelters instead of buying them from pet shops. We can opt to become vegetarian or vegan, or to reject clothing made with fur or leather. We can write letters to the editor, post links to Animalearn's The Science Bank, share articles about other animal causes on our Facebook pages, or tweet about the Leaping Bunny Program or the latest action alert on the AAVS website.

All of us have some talent we can share or some way in which we can contribute to the cause for animals. But how much of a difference do our individual actions make?

Back in what would have been Bev's heyday if she were a real person, feminist activists were tossing around the phrase "the personal is political." Whatever those words originally meant in the late 1960s and early 1970s, they've been interpreted in a variety of ways in the decades since, and a reasonable definition seems to be that our individual actions do have political impact.

Those activists weren't talking about party politics. They meant political in the sense of "social relations involving authority or power." So we can extrapolate that whatever we do from personal conviction, no matter how insignificant it may seem as a single act, can make a difference, not only to society but to us, by making us part of a broader effort.

However, not everyone agrees. Author and environmental activist Derrick Jensen, writing last summer in Orion, argues that "personal change doesn't equal social change." Citing the ecological destruction wrought by our industrial economy, he contends that "acts of personal consumption (or enlightenment)" such as using energy-saving light bulbs or taking shorter showers are more feel-good responses than active protests.

But I prefer the words of yet another activist, the late historian Howard Zinn. "If we do act, in however small a way, we don't have to wait for some grand Utopian future," he wrote. "The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory."

Of course, many of the actions for animals outlined above aren't particularly small, and could certainly qualify as activist. But individual acts can have a cumulative effect. We already have seen how companies respond when hordes of women pledge to not buy lipsticks that were tested on animals. And our actions may also influence other people or events in ways we cannot foresee, and may never know. Could Caroline Earle White ever have imagined, when she founded the American Anti- Vivisection Society in 1883, that her action would still be influencing science and the fight against animal cruelty more than a century later?

I THOUGHT ABOUT THIS RECENTLY when I asked a couple of AAVS Board Members, Aaron McIntyre and Jeanne Bray, about their personal journeys as advocates for animals. Like many of us, they had always loved animals and rescued strays, and committed to animal causes when they were young. But their commitment never seemed to become dulled by the demands of daily life as the years passed.

Aaron was still in his teens and a student at Drexel University when he landed a co-op job with the City of Philadelphia that required him to collect effluent samples from processing plants. The samples were then examined in a laboratory, and the content determined the fee each plant would be billed by the city. Among the places on his list were slaughterhouses, where he was required to lift the covers on the manholes in the production areas.

There, he recalls, "I witnessed the horror and the complete lack of compassion for these beings. It shocked me. It was a visceral, not an intellectual, reaction…a visceral abhorrence."

Aaron had always been sympathetic to animals, but from the moment he set foot in a slaughterhouse, he became vegetarian. "I haven't eaten meat since. And it was just a couple of years later that I became a vegan," he adds. "I was very sympathetic to those powerless beings at the whim of those in power."

As an athlete who was doing triathlons at that time, he was concerned about any possible impact on his health, so he joined a food co-op that enabled him to get the kinds of foods he wanted. He began working for the co-op newsletter, "so I could spread the word," and later worked at a health club, where he also exposed a lot of people to his point of view at a time when vegetarianism and veganism were not nearly so well-established as they are now.

"I felt it was almost a fulltime job, explaining myself to everybody," he says. As he learned more about vegetarianism, "I developed a strong internal philosophical base for my position…and I think that is taking an action, to develop a strong philosophy that you have arrived at honestly from intellectual exploration."

Aaron may never know if his philosophical commitment to a vegan lifestyle enticed others to convert, but he surely caused many people to ponder an ethical choice that they may not have encountered previously.

(It also led him to AAVS. Back in the early 1980s, he met Sue Leary behind the counter of a vegetarian booth at a Philadelphia street fair, although they didn't reconnect for years. When she became President of AAVS in the 1990s, however, she invited him to be on the Board.)

As an investment advisor later in his career, he embraced the concept of socially responsible investing.

"I regard socially responsible investing as a form of personal empowerment and economic democracy," he says. "It's voting with your money. I think socially responsible investing affects things. Clearly it makes money—that has been demonstrated—but as far as making a difference, the more people who do it, the more effective it is becoming. A lot of companies that didn't care about their ethical considerations now increasingly do care, and that's largely because of institutional investors rather than individual investors.

"Social actions are extremely important," he adds. Jeanne Bray would certainly agree. Even as a kid, Jeanne would turn bugs right side up and carry them outside rather than kill them, so it was no surprise that as a young adult she became an animal activist and later a vegetarian. In Delaware, she joined a group that helped people who couldn't afford spaying and neutering, but it was during the early 1980s that she became increasingly involved with animal causes.

"It was a heady time for animal rights," she remembers. "In Philadelphia, they were having all those big rallies, and I started going to them. That's when I encountered AAVS, and met Sue [Leary] and [former AAVS President] William Cave. I became a life member back then."

Jeanne and Sue established an animal rights group that was active for a considerable time, but eventually Jeanne, the mother of two girls, moved to a county north of Philadelphia, where she became active in national politics before getting involved with a no-kill shelter. About a decade ago, she joined the board of AAVS.

Most recently, she has been interpreting "the personal is political" quite literally, working with her township supervisors in an effort to find a humane way of managing the deer-human conflicts.

"I know many people who don't want the deer killed, but won't speak up," she says. "Some people find it kind of embarrassing to speak up for animals because there are people who would make fun, who think that 'they're only animals.'"

Wildlife-human conflict in the suburbs is a difficult situation for government and citizens, she says, because they don't know how to resolve it. In her township, they are trying to educate people to adapt to sharing their world with the animals.

Not everyone can be as committed as Aaron or Jeanne, of course. And there is no one-size-fits-all response for those of us who care about animals. You may not want to go vegetarian. Perhaps you aren't comfortable speaking out in public.

But as Grandma Bev persuaded her grandchildren in that comic strip, there's always something you can do, right where you are now, to make the world a better place. Especially for animals.

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